By Abhijit Singh
Last week, China’s ordered an administrative reorganisation of its South China Sea territories, injecting new discord in an already tense region. Beijing instituted two new municipal districts, carving up the governance of the Paracel and Spratly island groups, earlier managed by the local administration of Sansha — China’s southernmost city of Hainan province – between two sub-authorities. Xisha and Nansha (Chinese names for the Paracel and Spratly Islands) will now function as separate administrative units with jurisdiction over their respective island chains. Aimed ostensibly at strengthening control over the disputed South China Sea, the move has been criticized by security analysts who say the shift in administration of the disputed Spratly group to Fiery Cross Island – one of China’s three military grade artificial islands in the region – raises the possibility of regional conflict[*].
China’s neighbours may well have anticipated the gambit. Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have in recent months sought to offer pushback to Chinese aggression in their near-seas, employing administrative, legal and operational means. In December last year, Malaysia approached the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf claiming waters beyond the 200-kilometre limit of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the northern part of the South China Sea – a move prompted by China’s extended presence in and around the Luconia Shoals. Weeks later, Indonesia deployed warships and a submarine in the waters off the Natuna Islands after an encroachment by Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships. Earlier this month, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations protesting the PRC’s sweeping assertions in the South China Sea, after a Chinese ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat.
The effort hasn’t counted for much. An irked China has doubled down on its territorial claims, sending in more militia and coast guard vessels into disputed regions. China’s bullying behavior has been most visible in the waters off Vietnam and Malaysia, where a stand-off is brewing between the Malaysian coast guard and a Chinese government survey ship. The Chinese vessel and its coast guard escorts have been accused of harassing an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company. The United States has rushed to respond, ordering the USS America – an amphibious assault ship – and guided missile warships USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry in the region. Amid fears of an impending confrontation with China, an Australian warship, the HMAS Parramatta has joined the US warships in exercises close to where Chinese ships are stationed.
Three aspects of the drama unfolding in the South China Sea are relevant for India. First, Chinese militia operations have focused on the region’s Western end close to the Indian Ocean Region, targeting countries that India has a close political and military relationship with. Since September 2018, when a Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyer closed to within 100 yards the USS Decatur near Gaven reef in the South China Sea, China’s naval and militia operations have harassed Vietnamese and Indonesian law enforcement agencies which frequently cooperate with the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in regional security initiatives.
Second, the developments in the South China Sea coincide with a rise in Chinese activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean, particularly Chinese research and survey vessel presence. In September last year an Indian warship expelled the Shiyan 1, a Chinese research vessel found intruding into the exclusive economic zone off the coast of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At a time when there’s talk of a China-backed plan to construct a canal across the Thai isthmus and a secret agreement for a Chinese naval base on the Cambodian coast, a spurt in Chinese presence in the eastern Indian Ocean has triggered disquiet in New Delhi. To add to India’s discomfort, China’s mining operations in the Southern Indian Ocean have expanded considerably, as also the presence of Chinese fishing boats areas close to India’s territorial waters.
A third factor for Indian analysts to consider has been the growing instances of Chinese intelligence ship sightings in the IOR. Chinese Dongdiao class intelligence-gathering ships – known earlier to stalk US, Australian and Japanese warships in the Western Pacific – now operate in the waters of the Eastern Indian Ocean, keeping an eye on the Indian naval movements. One such Chinese spy ship was spotted close to the eastern sea border near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands late last year causing some disquiet in India’s security establishment. Regional observers are troubled by Beijing’s attempts to take advantage of a fluid geopolitical situation following COVID-19. With many Southeast Asia leaders sick or in self-imposed quarantine and Washington distracted by the pandemic at home, Chinese militias have upped the tempo of operations in critical regional hotspots.
India’s position on the South China Sea disputes has so far been neutral. A tendency to view the region through a prism of geopolitics and “balance of power” makes Indian decision makers wary of taking a stand on China’s aggressive posturing. Yet the costs of saying and doing nothing are rising. To many in New Delhi, it is clear that China’s firming grip over disputed territories in the South China Sea portends greater power projection in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
The imperative for India then is to come out on the side of maritime principle in the South China Sea. New Delhi must display solidarity with Southeast Asia partners by publically stating Indian discomfiture with Chinese assertiveness. A dialogue with China and ASEAN on a ‘rules-based order’ in maritime-Asia would go a long way, as would an Indian initiative to set the terms of engagement between maritime forces in the continental littorals. Else, China will dictate terms in Southeast Asia, and eventually the Indian Ocean.
[*] China’s three military and dual-use in the contested Spratly chain are Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross. Each has naval, air, radar and defensive facilities, and aircraft hangers that can accommodate 24 fighter jets and four larger planes, including surveillance, transport, refueling or bomber aircraft. Hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers have also been built on the islands.